Choir sings for joy and hope

As Aboriginal Languages Week finds its voice, one remote school is ready to join the chorus. Kerrie O’Connor reports.

Wilcannia Central School students performed with the Sydney Youth Orchestra earlier this year.

When eight young singers from Wilcannia Central School stepped up before an orchestra and lifted their voices in Barkandji language, it filled hearts with joy and hope.

The performance with 70 musicians from the Sydney Youth Orchestra was hugely emotional for performers, staff and families.

The junior singers, aged between seven and nine, had rehearsed for months, learning four songs with singer-songwriters Auntie Nancy Bates, Uncle Leroy Johnson and Aimee Volkofsky.

When they finally stepped onstage in the winter of 2023, it was to sound springtime for an ancient language.

As the first Aboriginal Languages Week gets underway on 22 October, Wilcannia’s choir is just one verse in a language revival sweeping NSW.

The chance to learn Barkandji and sing with elders and the orchestra was an experience the students, including nine-year-old Zion Tye, will never forget.

“I want to share Barkandji with other people,” Zion said.

Before the show, the singers and choir leader Rachel Holmes had never seen or even heard a live orchestra, let alone one with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conductor Ben Northey holding the baton.

Musicians showed off and shared their instruments with the students, with Harper Tye joining in on the kettle drums, while Heather Weldon proved a natural on the trumpet.

Mr Northey even relinquished his baton to Zion, Lashara Jones and Ms Holmes.

“This has been a great highlight, an amazing opportunity to connect with the community here in Wilcannia,” an emotional Mr Northey said after the show.

“I have never done something like this in 20 years.

“It was moving to work with these young kids and to hear them singing these original songs.”

Mr Northey visited Wilcannia at the invitation of friend and Sydney Youth Orchestra conductor James Pensini.

Mr Pensini said the orchestra’s students had volunteered for the Big West tour, which started at Cowra and travelled to Wilcannia via Gol Gol, then on to Broken Hill.

“It is our favourite thing to do, to find these wonderful new musical voices, collaborate with them … and be able to amplify those local stories,” Mr Pensini said.

“We know these trips will be just as powerful for our players.”

Students dressed in colourful T-shirts with Aboriginal designs singing into microphones. Students dressed in colourful T-shirts with Aboriginal designs singing into microphones.
Image: Wilcannia Central School students Zion Tye, Lashara Jones, JJ and Kitana Cattermole, Harper Tye and Heather Weldon perform with the Sydney Youth Orchestra.

Zion performed to a much larger audience when he sang live and unaccompanied on ABC NSW Drive with presenter Anna Moulder.

With Auntie Patricia Atkinson, he also spoke on ABC Broken Hill, where Ms Volkofsky completes a double act as morning show presenter.

Zion and his little brother Harper hail from Yorta Yorta country in Victoria but jumped at the chance to learn and sing in Barkandji when they moved to Wilcannia.

“They are so loving singing and learning Barkandji language,” Auntie Patricia said.

“It makes me feel special and very proud.”

Kitana Cattermole also sang live on the radio, to the joy of her mother and school administrative officer Joyanne Williams.

“She loves singing. She can’t wait for rehearsal. She never forgets and is always on time. Barkandji is her cultural background,” Ms Williams said.

“We don’t have many elders left and it is important for the younger ones to learn it and keep it going.”

Ms Holmes said students loved performing in the choir, so much so, they even stay back after school on Fridays to rehearse.

“Having the ability to sing in language is really special for our students,” she said.

“I get goosebumps when they sing. You can’t help but be filled with emotions. They bring me so much joy and to share that with others, especially our children, is special.”

Principal Nadia Mills said the choir performed at many events and “the whole school stops to listen”.

Two days after their Wilcannia show, performers received a standing ovation in a packed Broken Hill Civic Centre.

Ms Holmes said the performances often doubled as recruitment drives for the choir.

“Our choir grew after some big performances last year and it was interesting to see so many extra kids wanting to be part of that this year,” she said.

“It helps the students’ confidence, social skills, teamwork and self-worth.”

The children also had an opportunity to rub shoulders with Australian music royalty when they performed with Missy Higgins at the Mundi Mundi Bash in Broken Hill.

“We did virtual rehearsals, then had time to rehearse in her tent,” Ms Holmes said.

Nine-year-old singer Zhayle Lawson loves choir and wants to form her own one day.

The choir is also an outlet for teachers Mary Angley and Trish Coulson.

“It is a happy thing. There is no pressure and singing is joyful,” Ms Coulson said.

“I like seeing the students succeeding and thriving in an arts context,” Ms Angley added.

“I love watching the older ones take care of the little ones and watch them get better and take on opportunities.”

A little girl wearing pink and holding a baton with her back turned. A little girl wearing pink and holding a baton with her back turned.
Image: Lashara Jones conducts members of the Sydney Youth Orchestra.
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